Arizona execution takes two hours: how ethics of death penalty are changing (+video)

The execution took so long – one hour and 57 minutes – that Joseph Wood’s lawyers filed an appeal for a stay in the middle of what they called a 'horrifically botched execution.'

By , Staff Writer

A condemned Arizona man being executed for murder gasped for nearly two hours before dying late Wednesday, raising a fresh array of vexing questions about whether Americans can, ethically, continue to execute people sentenced to death by their fellow citizens.

The execution took so long – one hour and 57 minutes – that convicted double-murderer Joseph Wood’s lawyers filed a stay of execution appeal in the middle of what they called a “horrifically botched execution.” The stay was ultimately denied by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. 

According to witnesses, Mr. Wood became unconscious a few  minutes after drugs began to be injected into both arms. But the man then began to gasp uncomfortably – “like a fish on shore,” one journalist noted – and wasn’t declared dead for another two hours.

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State Corrections Director Charles Ryan said the death was nevertheless humane and argued that Wood didn’t suffer needlessly. His gasps were more like “sonorous … snores,” Ryan said, suggesting Wood was asleep and comfortable as a drug that causes systemic shutdown took time to take hold.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer called for a review into the execution, but noted that Wood’s prolonged death stood in “stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims, and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family.”

Rebecca Dresser, a bioethics expert at Washington University in St. Louis, draws two conclusions about Wood’s botched execution and the varied reactions from witnesses and officials.

One is that the untested drug combinations are now undermining the idea that executions should be quick, painless and ultimately humane.

The second, she says, is that, “given public views on the kind of person we’re talking about, there’s some sort of double standard at work, where [those condemned to death for inflicting pain and death on their victims] don’t deserve the quality controls that we require for drugs for other people.”

The broader issue being broached by America having to confront not-quite-painless executions is that it’s a test of a cultural and legal idea – that “the way we advance in a civil rights manner is we move to a medical model” for executions, Dresser says.

But given resistance to oversight by doctors and even the Federal Drug Administration (which has begged out of testing state death penalty cocktails for efficacy and safety), “it’s becoming harder and harder to maintain that the agent of execution is a medical method” because of the lack of testing and oversight.

Arizona, like other death penalty states, has been forced to re-engineer the “cocktail” of heavy drugs used to first cause a person to lose consciousness and then stop the condemned person’s heart.

The reason? Concerned about their ethical involvement, European drug companies stopped supplying US states with a key drug, even as the sole US supplier stopped making the drug.

Media organizations that have reviewed cases comparing the old drug cocktail with the newer versions suggest that the new versions aren’t working as well.

Meanwhile, the search for a new and humane death penalty cocktail has been plagued by secrecy. In most cases, state prison officials are refusing to give detailed information about their concoctions, given that publicity could cause drug-makers and pharmacies to stop selling their wares to state executioners.

At least partly as a result, Americans have witnessed a number of botched executions in their name recently. A Florida man executed last October with a new mix of drugs took a long time to become unconscious, and he “made more body movements” than people executed under the old formula, the Associated Press reported.

An Ohio prisoner in January took 20 minutes to die with a new formula as compared with the average of 10 minutes with the old, now-unavailable agents.

And in one of the worst botched executions up until Wednesday, an Oklahoma man in April regained consciousness, then writhed, grimaced and even talked as the drugs took hold. Panicked prison officials closed off a curtain to a room of witnesses and tried to stop the execution, but the man died 45 minutes later of a heart attack.

The immediate impact of the botched executions have been reviews and calls for deeper study by states.

The series of botched executions also brought back the specter of more primitive, but potentially more effective and ethical, ways of executing Americans, including firing squads. Missouri, for one, is considering bringing back the gas chamber to replace lethal injection.

Woods’ lawyer, Dale Baich, said the ordeal supports banning the US death penalty altogether, a notion supported by Rob Freer, a human rights researcher with Amnesty International.

“How many more times do officials need to be reminded of the myth of the ‘humane execution’ before they give up on their experiment with judicial killing?” Mr. Freer said in an interview with Reuters.

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